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Inside MPI's Education Conference

January 31, 2001, 12:00 AM EST

Where do 2,500 unsung heroes go to share war stories and triumphs with people who understand the art and science of a smoothly run event? They gathered at last week's Meeting Professionals International's Professional Education Conference at the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans. They shared the best practices of an industry that annually holds more than one million meetings and serves 79 million attendees, according to Meetings & Conventions magazine. One thing you can be sure of: This meeting was efficient and well run, with every imaginable precaution and forethought. (The schedule of events even had 12-step program meetings included.)

THE HOOPLA
A dramatic set resembling the grounds of an antebellum southern estate designed by New Orleans production impresario Blaine Kern Jr. set the stage for the opening session. The opening started with a musical presentation featuring an original song about meeting planners and a team of dancers that looked like convention goers. One highlight of the opening session was the announcement of MPI's 18,000th member, Darlene Johnson, director of international marketing development for Abbot International.

THE PARTIES
Of all the parties surrounding the conference, the bash with the biggest buzz was Starwood's exclusive party at Anne Rice's mansion, St. Elizabeth's. Paper Doll Promotions provided entertainers dressed as the vampire Lestat (from Rice's books, of course) and the evening also included performances by Blood, Sweat & Tears and a gospel choir. Chef Paul Prudhomme of K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen catered the event.

See the invitation for this event...

Other parties: Disney hosted a soiree at Commander's Palace featuring Drew Carey, with Disney executives changing tables during each course in order to mingle around the room...Mohegan Sun hosted the MPI Foundation, also at the Commander's Palace, with guests arriving in a limo bus with a police escort...Wyndham hosted the greater New York MPI chapter with a buffet at the Wyndham Canal Place.

THE HUCKSTER
Meeting planners at the opening session got an unusual earful from CNN Headline News anchor Lynne Russell. Appearing in order to plug her book, How to Win Friends, Kick Ass and Influence People (St. Martin's), Russell first showed a video clip of some of her on-air exploits, including bloopers and a tape of her participating in a magic trick that had her disappearing in a box. But her speech was lacking in magic. While encouraging event planners to take care of themselves, Russell said, “No matter where your head is, there's nothing that 20 minutes at Victoria's Secret can't fix.”

Her examples: “If Hillary had bothered to go to Victoria's Secret, maybe Monica Lewinsky wouldn't have received private lessons in the White House,“ and “If Saddam had read a Victoria's Secret catalog, our guys wouldn't be shaking sand out of their shorts.” The audience seemed universally shocked. Even two days later, we still heard people discussing the speech on the commuter bus from our hotel--and wishing aloud that Russell had performed the disappearing act a second time.

THE CHATTER
What people were talking about in and around the conference:

The hottest speaker... The day after the inauguration, planners were buzzing about the hottest newly available speaker: President Clinton. Speculators say he'll be repped by the Washington Speakers Bureau. But how much will he charge? (The New York Post's Cindy Adams recently speculated he'd bring in $100,000 per speech.)

Low-energy meetings... Considering Northern California's energy problems, some planners questioned whether they would risk taking a national meeting there any time soon.

New Etiquette Problems... Obnoxious cell phones ringing was just the start. The latest way meetings participants are bugging speakers: Playing interactive games with each other on their hand held devices. (Guys...at least remember to turn off the audio.)

Unplugged hotels... Equipping hotels with the latest technology requires huge capital expenditures, so when will the laggard properties get up to speed? Many appear to be a beat behind.

Reality bites... While reality-based shows like Survivor, The Mole and Temptation Island lure television audiences, will meeting planners need more edgy programming to appeal to audiences?

It's the economy, stupid (again)... How will the meeting industry adapt to the perception of a slowing economy? Increased outsourcing? Less frivolity?

Prove your worth... One planner told us she always shows her boss two different budgets for an event--one with her doing it, and one with an untrained person doing it. The difference is staggering. And she proves her value.

The biggest line at the conference... It wasn't for the ladies room, the coat check or any of the parties. It was the line for the autographed photos of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, who appeared at a booth to promote their touring appearances.

Best trade show booths...Smith & Wollensky had two (fake) cows and an elaborate table setting. Starwood set a stylish tone with a sleek booth (much like the company's W hotel chain). And with its staff all in black, New Yorkers felt at home.

THE CLASSES
Some of the seminars at the conference:
* “How to Manage Online Registration,” by Mike Stallcop of the Krugman Group International.

* “Hotel Mergers and Their Impact on the Meeting Industry,” by Theresa Breining of Concepts Worldwide, with a panel including Steven Armitage of Hilton; JoAnn Kurtz-Ahlers of Ritz Carlton; William Reed of the Americas, Fairmont Hotels and Resorts; Emanuel Schriebmair of Sol Melia Hotels and Resorts; David Scypinski of Starwood and Mark Sherwin of Marriott.

* “Introduction to Wine,” by Jann Cotter and Kelley Creamer of Kendall Jackson Wine Estates.

* “Resume Writing at Its Best,” by Craig Snow of the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University.

* “Managing with Cultural Savvy: How to Supervise an International Staff,” by Krista Rahe of Rahe Hospitality Services.

Posted 01.31.01

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